By Noel Randewich
OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - Federal agents, pressing a government clampdown on medical marijuana, raided a San Francisco Bay-area college known as the "Princeton of Pot" on Monday and briefly detained its founder.
The sweep turned Oaksterdam University, which offers courses in the growing and dispensing of marijuana, into the latest flashpoint between federal law enforcement and medical cannabis advocates in California and other states where cannabis has been decriminalized for medicinal purposes.
"This is clearly an attack on regulation," Oaksterdam University Chancellor Dale Sky Jones said. "They just went after a school that tries to teach people how to do things legally."
Several dozen protesters rallied at the school during the raid, some of them openly smoking joints as they carried signs that read "End federal interference" and "Cannabis is medicine."
Oakland police handcuffed at least one demonstrator, but the reason for the arrest was not immediately clear.
In addition to the college, federal authorities raided the home of veteran medical marijuana activist and Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee, who was briefly detained during the search but not arrested, said Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Joycelyn Barnes
Lee, confined to a wheelchair by a spinal injury, financed a drive to collect signatures for a petition in support of Proposition 19, a failed 2010 initiative that would have legalized possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana in California for recreational use.
Other raids were conducted at a medical marijuana dispensary run by Lee, a nearby cannabis museum and the home of Todd McCormick, another longtime medical marijuana activist who has previously been arrested for growing pot, Barnes said.
Neither McCormick nor anyone else was arrested in connection with Monday's actions, she said.
Barnes said the raids were all carried out under a federal search warrant that a judge had ordered sealed, and she declined further comment, except to say that DEA officers were joined by the Internal Revenue Service agents and federal marshals.
"This is just part of the three agencies combining resources to investigate criminality involving marijuana," she said.
Oaksterdam instructor David McCullick expressed outrage at the raids, saying the school was licensed by the city and that its "grow lab" contains fewer than 100 small cannabis plants.
"It's just a school. It's freedom of speech," he said.
CRACKDOWN CALLED MISGUIDED
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit group that promotes decriminalization of responsible drug use, said the crackdown was misguided.
"These raids will of course do nothing to enhance public safety and health -- or to reduce the availability of marijuana," he said in a statement. "Their principal impact will be to push both patients and provides back into the entirely underegulated ... underground market."
In California and other states that have legalized marijuana for medical reasons, the U.S. government has sought in recent months to shut down storefront medical cannabis shops and greenhouses deemed by federal investigators to be serving as drug-trafficking fronts, as well as those that are located close to schools and parks.
Federal authorities have recently intensified their crackdown in Colorado and Washington state, where voters will be deciding in ballot initiatives in November whether to make those states the first to legalize weed for recreational use.
A total of 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some sort of legalized medical-marijuana statutes, according to the National Drug Policy Alliance. But cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
The Obama administration has said it would not single out individual patients who possess or grow their own marijuana in states with medical pot statutes. But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and various federal prosecutors have said the government would continue to target operations that support for-profit, illegal drug dealing under the guise of medical marijuana.
Oaksterdam, widely referred to as the "Harvard of Hemp" and the "Princeton of Pot," opened in 2007 and bills itself as the first cannabis college in the United States. It holds classes on Wednesday mornings and one weekend every month.
(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Anthony Boadle)